By JOSH BERHOW
Cammi Granato, one of the best women’s hockey players ever, had a job for her sister.
It was the first day on the ice at Camp Granato, and Cammi asked Christina, who was working as a paramedic at the camp, to write the first names of all the skaters on tape and put it on the top of their helmets, just above their face masks.
After Cammi handed a reluctant Christina a Sharpie, she trotted out onto the ice. She hardly took a few steps before she was greeted by a spunky blonde-haired 8-year-old.
“Hi!” the girl says to Christina, who distinctly remembered her voice sounding like she had just eaten a helium balloon. “I’m Baylee. It’s B-A-Y-L-E-E, not B-A-I-L-E-Y.”
“I was in awe of her from that first day when she told me how to spell her name,” says Christina.
Years later, Christina still jokes about that moment with the girl who would soon become her daughter, telling her, “You had me at B-A-Y-L-E-E.”
People often get the wrong idea when they see Baylee Wellhausen, a senior at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, play hockey.
They see a smooth skater and a gifted scorer, and then they see her mom and dad, Kevin Wellhausen and Christina Granato Wellhausen, and it all clicks. Christina’s younger sister, Cammi, was a pioneer of women’s hockey and an Olympic gold medalist, and in 2010 she became the first female to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. The girls also have four brothers, and three of them – Tony, Donny and Robby – played hockey at the University of Wisconsin (as did their first cousin, Kevin). Tony is currently the assistant coach for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Donny is the head coach for the U.S. National Team Development Program’s U17s and Robby is the girls hockey director for the Chicago Fury.
It’s a hockey family. Baylee was born into it, most people assume.
“Oh, that makes sense,” says Kevin, imitating what most bystanders assume when they see Baylee’s connections to the Granatos, “look at her play hockey.”
But Baylee Wellhausen’s story is quite different than what most assume.
“Unless you know the story, you don’t really know the story,” Kevin says. “But it’s a story I love to tell.”
When Baylee was 8 years old her birth mom, Karen Wellhausen, died of breast cancer. It was March 24, 2004. Just a week earlier Karen had driven her kids, Baylee and Brooke, who was 4 at the time, to school in the morning.
No matter how sick Karen was during her five-year battle with cancer, she always tried to keep up with her kids. That’s what Baylee remembers. She also remembers her mom losing her hair as Baylee wondered what exactly was going on, and how her mom had to eventually use a cane to get around. But more than anything, Baylee remembers her mom’s fight.
“She was super, super positive about everything, and she really wanted to participate in our lives,” said Baylee, who is from Williams Bay, Wis. “So she would always try to drive us to school or be at our games no matter how sick she was. So that’s what I remember, kind of admirable that she was always trying to spend her last moments with us.”
“Karen was an amazing person, and Baylee gets a lot of grit and fight from her and what she went through,” Kevin says. “Baylee got a lot of toughness from her.”
Soon after she passed, Baylee started wearing her mom’s pink bandana under her hockey helmet for every practice and every game. It was the same, plain pink bandana Karen wore to breast cancer walks and during chemo. Baylee wore it under her helmet all the way up through her junior year at Shattuck when she “kind of retired it.” It’s still with her, though, in her hockey bag, on the road for games or in her locker stall.
“It goes with me everywhere,” she says.
Baylee plans to wear it for the first time this year on Monday, the 10th anniversary of Karen’s death, when she and the U.S. Women’s Under 18 Team faces Hungary in the IIHF Women’s World Championships in Hungary.
The summer after Karen passed Baylee went to Camp Granato, which was like a second home to her. That’s also the same place where she met her idol, Cammi Granato, and Cammi’s sister, Christina, who would later come into her life in a bigger way than she could ever imagine.
Kevin and Christina met later that week at a barbecue – Christina was immediately interested in Kevin when he didn’t acknowledge her as just another hockey-playing Granato (she was a cheerleader on the 1985-86 Chicago Bears Super Bowl team) – and although they didn’t start dating right away, in August 2006 they were married. Christina’s adoption papers to become the legal mother of Baylee and Brooke came through about three months after the wedding.
To Christina and Kevin, the adoption process was always part of the plan.
“Why shouldn’t these little girls who had their worlds rocked have a mom and a family?” Christina said. “I always considered (Baylee and Brooke) having three awesome parents. It’s a collaborative group that made this family what it is. That’s kind of how we roll.”
But the Granatos played a big role in the Wellhausen’s life even before Christina and Kevin married. When Kevin, Karen and the girls went to Camp Granato the year before Karen passed, with Karen terribly sick at the time, Cammi talked to the family for about two hours one day after camp ended.
“The relationship (Baylee) has with Cammi is a real special one,” Kevin said. “Cammi is a saint. She came into our life at a time when we really needed.”
The number 21, the same jersey that Cammi and some of her brothers wore, was an obvious choice for Baylee.
“I wanted to be so much like her,” Baylee said, “and I was so lucky to have her become my aunt suddenly. It’s a miracle.”
“When Baylee was born, I never really acknowledged I was going to have a daughter until the end,” remembers Kevin, who Bailey calls the biggest hockey fan she knows.
When Baylee was 2 1/2 years old, her dad, on a whim, bought the smallest pair of Bauer 100s he could find and took her to open skating at a nearby rink. There were only a few minutes left to skate, so on their way home they stopped at an outdoor rink not far from their house.
Kevin took out a bucket and dumped about 50 pucks on the ice. “Pick them up for dad,” he told her.
“I was dumping pucks everywhere,” Kevin remembers, “and most kids fall over, but she could stay on edges and balance so well. She went and got them all.”
Kevin was one of Baylee’s coaches almost every year growing up, and she got more practice time skating with her four older cousins, all boys. She played with boys’ teams all the way up until her eighth-grade year, when she double-rostered with both the Madison Capitals AAA boys team and the U16 Tier I girls team, playing in about 90 total games before she went to Shattuck as a freshman.
Her first year at SSM she scored 33 goals and totaled 62 points, which ranked second on the U16 squad and was 38 more than the next-highest total among her grade. The following year she scored 42 goals and had 65 points – both team-highs – and only one player had more points than Baylee had goals.
As a junior, and her first year on the prep team, she finished with team-highs again in goals (33) and points (51), and this year, with just a handful of games left, she leads the Sabres in goals (43), assists (36) and points (79). She’ll end the season with the most points a girls prep player has had since Amanda Kessel registered 122 in 2009-10.
Baylee can play center and wing, but Gordie Stafford, Shattuck’s girls prep coach and director of girls hockey, doesn’t assign her a position. “She’s just a player,” he says.
Stafford says Baylee is the female version of former Sabres standout and Minnesota Wild star Zach Parise. She’s a smooth skater and has strong desire.
“She doesn’t have a mean bone in her body, but she is competitive,” Stafford said. “It’s just having that competitive nature come out, and now she has that. She has scored so many big goals for us this year.”
“She truly takes my breath away,” Christina said. “I’m not just saying (that because) she can put the puck in the top shelf, I don’t care about that. I love the way my kids play. The passion and integrity they play with, and you can see that through her cage. … She is small but powerful that one.”
Of the 35 Division I women’s hockey teams in the country, about 30 of them had contacted Baylee on Sept. 1 of her junior year when they were first allowed to. But Baylee verbally committed to one school, the only one she visited, right away before her junior year started. Next fall she’ll be the fifth player with Granato ties to be a Badger.
Christina once used to make the tireless drive to watch three brothers play in Madison every weekend. Now, living closer this time, she’ll do it again.
“I can’t believe my life is taking me back there,” Christina says. “I can’t believe it.”
It was a dream come true for Baylee, who used to marvel at the campus when she was growing up. Her dad used to drive her around the area, and the Kohl Center, when they would arrive early for her practices with the Madison Capitals. They drove down about an hour and 20 minutes one way from Williams Bay usually three times a week.
“I would picture myself being there and playing on the ice,” Baylee said, “and when Wisconsin offered it was just a no-brainer.”
It’s just past noon on a Friday. The wind is starting to sway outside the window next to Baylee as she sits at a small two-person table near the door of the Sabre Café in the Shattuck Sports Complex. She glances at her cell phone and then flips it upside down so it stops beaming with notifications and messages – the ordinary things high school girls get on their smart phones.
Besides being a regular teenager, and a hockey player, she’s also nearly fluent in ASL, and she’s had straight As through her four years at Shattuck. (Well, two Bs if you want to count that pesky calculus class.) She’s also been her class’ student representative for Shattuck’s student government all four years. (No one has ever run against her.)
Soon she’ll head home, back to Williams Bay before she leaves for Hungary and the Women’s World Championships, where she helped the U.S. earn silver last year.
She’s asked one final question on this Friday: if she ever really thinks about her situation, how ironic it is that she, the Sabres’ leading scorer and a future Badger, suddenly became a member of a family oozing with hockey stardom.
“The story is just so fascinating,” she says. “I just see it as such a blessing. I somehow got this whole family I have adored so much even before they were my family. I was just lucky enough to get them to become my family. I think it’s just so cool. I think it’s great though, too, because here I have them, but I’m also my own person. I don’t have their last name, and that means a lot to me. It kind of shows they aren’t my blood, and I have my own story I’m making.”